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Reliable Sources? | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Reliable Sources?

In my new “Think Again” column, I apparently explain that “former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller’s explanation of why he supported the Iraq war doesn’t inspire much confidence in our punditocracy.” It’s “It’s Not What Bill Keller Believed About Iraq—It’s Who” and you can read it here.

Now here’s Reed:

Reliable Sources?
By Reed Richardson

Last night’s Republican presidential candidate debate, coupled with the upcoming address on President Obama’s jobs plan later this evening, has all the feel of a presidential campaign finally in full swing. And clearly the folks over atPolitico couldn’t be happier, as the site’s front page today offers up a veritable orgiastic feast of speech previews and blow-by-blow debate reviews. None of it more foreboding of where campaign journalism may be heading over the next 15 months, perhaps, than Politico’s Twitter’s-eye-view wrap-up of the GOP debate.

Written by one Juana Summers, this piece notably goes on for nearly 1,000 words with nary a mention of any candidate’s actual position from the debate on a serious matter of policy. Instead, Summers views the whole debate through the narrow prism of viewer and pundit Tweets, condensing down further the typical, context-free debate recap form into something that ominously suggests even the old, seven-second soundbite is quickly being cast aside for the 140-characters-or-less micro-thoughts. (I’d also add that conspicuously absent from Summers’ curation of last night’s debate Tweets is fellow Politico blogger Maggie Haberman’s laughably sycophantic paean to debate moderator John Harris, who also just happens to be her boss: “Needs reiterating - Harris is doing a great, great job at the GOP debate.”)

As I mentioned, there are numerous other post-debate story angles on Politico today, but read them all and you’ll still be hard pressed to understand why, for example, Social Security really isn’t a Ponzi scheme, despite Texas Governor Rick Perry’s claims. Or why Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s vacuous non-answer on deporting undocumented immigrants exposed her once again as a little more than a demagoguing xenophobe. Or why taking a flight in Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s ideal vision of America would be a lot like playing Russian roulette. According toPolitico’s editorial vision, all the policy repercussions of what the GOP candidates espoused last night only matter as background to the more important narrative: how they affect the horserace. 

Thanks to our country’s long tradition of non-parliamentary-based, regularly-scheduled election cycles, it was perhaps inevitable that the phenomenon of so-called horserace journalism would arise. As campaign seasons elongated and newsholes proliferated, the corresponding explosion of extra column-inches, time slots, blog posts, and, now, Tweets to be filed require something, anything to cover. And, let’s face it, there’s a reason why it’s called a political campaign, because, just as with a military campaign, a large majority of the time nothing of interest is really happening.

As a result, stories that fixate solely on process—who’s up and who’s down, who’s ahead and who’s behind—have become a staple of the campaign beat and daily fodder for political pundits. How a political candidate’s speeches, positions, and promises would translate into actual policy and, therefore, impact most Americans increasingly gets short shrift. And if critics or the public occasionally rise up to decry this self-inflicted blinkering by the media, it’s met with begrudging acknowledgment that, yes, this kind of superficial reporting is a problem, followed quickly thereafter by, say, aweeks-long obsession over what the color of Al Gore’s clothing means about the weakness of his presidential campaign.

In other words, horserace journalism has, for the most part, been accepted as something of a necessary evil in most news organizations, a small redoubt manned by political obsessives who seemed to speak their own cryptic language, coincidentally not unlike those strange few who cover actual horse races. But if the most of the Beltway media has long featured a small share of these bylines in its newshole, it wasn’t until the formation of the print/online hybrid Politico in 2007—co-founded by former longtime Washington Postpolitical reporters Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris—that one publication so wholly and unapologetically gave itself over to this phenomenon.

Indeed, for the pundits and politicians that populate Washington’s chattering classes, Politico has become the equivalent of their Daily Racing Form. (Politico blogger Ben Smith’s online headshot is atop a caricature of him sitting on a horsetrack rail with binoculars around his neck.) By cataloging the tiniest quotidian details of this world—what might be called backstretch stories in horse racing—and then breathlessly projecting them into a running series of overly dramatized heroic triumphs or ignominious defeats, Politicohas taken the idea of an insider tip sheet and magnified it into a scale never seen before. But its journalistic mantra belies ambitions beyond merely just being first with a scoop about the latest palace intrigue, Politico instead wants to drive the Beltway narrative as much as it wants to document it. (To see, in graph form, the key role Politico played in launching many of the memes in the final months of the 2008 Presidential election, check out this Nieman Journalism Lab post.) Here’s Gabriel Sherman in The New Republic last year:

Reporting, though, is only part of the equation: The motto around the Politico newsroom is to “win the morning, win the afternoon”—by which editors mean that Politico's stories need to be the most talked-about and cited in that day’s news cycle.

This relentlessness is part and parcel of Politico’s culture. So much so that this AdWeek article tells of co-founder VandeHei sending out a company-wide email on April 1, 2009 called “Winning the Dawn,” wherein he said everyone would have to file at least one story by 6 a.m. each day. Many in the newsroom didn’t get the April Fool’s joke, however, and some even broke down and cried.

Perhaps no one better exemplifies Politico’s “win the morning” message than Mike Allen, whose crack-of-dawn, email newsletter, Playbook, has earned him the unofficial title of “DC’s most influential journalist.” Indeed, if Politico is the equivalent of the chattering classes’ reliable sources, Allen stands out as the town’s most renowned tout, accumulating a vast trove of supposed insider knowledge and then turning around and dispensing it to a select, connected few in ways that can significantly shift the odds or reshape the debate. To see this in action, look no further than this anecdote from a (rather fawning) 2010 New York Times Magazine profile:

More recently, Allen asked in his April 10 Playbook: “Good Saturday morning: For brunch convo: Why isn’t Secretary Clinton on the media short lists for the Court?” By Monday, the convo had moved from the brunch table to “Morning Joe” (where the host, Joe Scarborough, advocated for her) and “Today” (where the Republican senator Orrin Hatch mentioned her, too). Later that day, Politico’s Ben Smith quoted a State Department spokesman who “threw some coolish water on the Clinton-for-Scotus buzz in an e-mail.” By then, the cable and blog chatter was fully blown. The White House issued a highly unusual statement that Secretary Clinton would not be nominated. Politico then sent out a “breaking news alert,” and Smith reported that the White House had “hurriedly punctured the trial balloon.” End of convo.

OK, so cable newsers and political bloggers got a few days of segments and bylines of Allen’s suggestion, but it didn’t go anywhere, so no harm, no foul, right? Well, I’d submit that this level of influence is nonetheless troubling, especially since Allen counts himself among one of those pious journalistic species who don’t ever vote (a longtime pet peeve of mine), something he acknowledged in a personal essay back in 2008.

OK, that’s not quite accurate. Allen does admit to having caved in and voted once, in a Virginia Democratic primary years ago. Still, even when explaining this harmless fact, his tone—damned peer pressure made me do it!—makes it clear he feels like he committed some moral transgression rather than exercised his franchise. In explaining how his political asceticism was further formed early on in his journalism career, Allen offers up this:

This view was reinforced when I started covering state politics, which is much more intimate than the massive circuses that follow the presidential candidates. When you’re assigned to a candidate for senator or governor, oftentimes you ride in their van. When they’re tired, you’re tired. When you’re hungry, they’re hungry. When they’re sick, you’re sick. I just wouldn’t feel right about hanging out with—and writing about—a candidate after rendering a secret thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

This is one of the best distillations of the pitfalls of journalism’s access trap I’ve seen. (This phenomenon is also why, over the past decade, “embedding” has worked so well for the U.S. military in helping it control the news narrative from the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Allen, of course, has a valid point, journalists are human and susceptible to the same biases, prejudices and blind spots as everybody else.

Unfortunately, Allen and many others in the Beltway media, in particular, have tried to resolve this perceived dilemma by shutting down, ignoring, or pretending away their own personal political opinions, biases, and prejudices. All while they cast an increasingly larger shadow over the very political discourse they claim to abjure. Over time, though, this self-abnegation can easily morph into an insidious self-censorship and this misguided sense of intellectual neutrality can beget an easily manipulated credulity.

Think I’m over-exaggerating? Consider this ironically political response, found at the end of the NYT Magazine profile of Allen:

In a recent phone call, I asked Allen what his hobbies were. He paused, went off the record and then came back with an unrevealing sound bite. “I’m a well-rounded person,” he said, “who is interested in the community, interested in family, interested in sports, interested in the arts, interested in restaurants.” I asked him what sports teams he roots for. “I’m not gonna do that,” Allen said. “Playbook is ecumenical.” He allowed that “an astute reader of Playbook will notice frequent references to the Packers, Red Sox and Florida Gators.”

If Allen is leery of the whole Nietzchean abyss-staring-back-into-you nature of political journalism, he sure has a funny way of showing it. His answer, carefully crafted and impertinently inoffensive, is almost pitch-perfect candidate boilerplate. I mean, he’s checking every box on the list. And let’s not overlook the semi-lapse into the third person—a common politicians’ habit—nor the use of the word ecumenical, with its religious connotations. All that’s left for him to do is to kiss a baby and then declare this the best-tasting apple pie he’s ever eaten at any State Fair, ever.

Politico, in other words, has begun living up to its name—becoming that which it claims to only objectively observe. But in a democracy, the press’s role is not to function merely as its own constituency, feeding stories back into itself for more clicks and more TV “hits.” It has a duty to serve the people first, since they are the real repositories of the country’s sovereign power and the ones that must bear the very real policy consequences after the political horserace is over. And that, after all, is the real drawback to getting all of one’s information exclusively from oddsmakers and handicappers, they make their money no matter who wins.

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